Bob Huggins was living out his dream.
In 2010, he was in his third season at West Virginia, as he returned to coach where he calls home. Huggins coached his alma mater back to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.
The Mountaineers were riding on a 10-game winning streak, as they were preparing to get on the big stage against Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana. The winning streak included running the table in the Big East Tournament, which concluded with John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ roaring through the sound system at Madison Square Garden. As the beloved song was playing during their celebration of the program’s first Big East Conference Tournament Championship, Huggins was emotional in his postgame interview.
“This is very special for me because it’s West Virginia,” Huggins said.
All Bob Huggins wanted to do was to give the state of West Virginia something they can be proud of… and he did just that. WVU ran through their region as the No. 2 seed during March Madness and was now finally given the respect they strived for.
During the second half of the Final Four game against Duke, WVU guard Da’Sean Butler drove into the lane and immediately went down, agonizing in pain. Butler—a Second-Team All-American player—was nearing the end of his career at WVU as one of the best to put on the gold and blue. The Newark, New Jersey native finished third on the all-time scoring list at 2,095 points, just behind Jerry West and Rod Hundley. Butler was a huge reason why West Virginia was in the position that they were in. When West Virginia needed a bucket in the 2009-10 season, they relied on Butler to come up big, and damn did he do a good job at it. Butler hit six game-winning shots throughout the season. Along with the training staff, Coach Huggins came out to check on Butler. It was apparent that the game, the season, and the collegiate career of Da’Sean Butler was over.
“Coach Huggins has a very unique way of motivating you to do things that you didn’t even know you could do,” Butler said. “That motivation helped instill a different kind of confidence in myself because it just made me feel like I could do anything. Any obstacle that was thrown at me in life I could figure out because of how he prepared me. I’m forever grateful that I have him as a mentor.”
With Butler laying on his back, tears running down his face, Huggins showed who he is at his core as he shared an embrace that will forever be remembered. Butler told Huggins that he just wanted to win a national championship for him. Unfortunately for Huggins, this was all too familiar with him.
Bob Huggins comforts Da’Sean Butler after a knee injury at the Final Four on April 3, 2010, in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
In 2000, Huggins was coaching the best team in the country at the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats were ranked No. 1 in the country most of the season at a record of 28-2, as they were heading into the Conference USA Tournament in their first-round matchup with St. Louis. Kenyon Martin was the consensus best player in the country, winning the 2000 Wooden Award. Martin’s draft stock was skyrocketing like crazy, as the 6-foot-9 forward was sought out to be the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NBA draft. Martin ended up breaking his leg in the first round of the conference tournament. Kenyon Martin told Huggins that he just wanted to win him a national championship. The future No. 1 pick, who was the best player in the country, wasn’t concerned about what his draft stock would do or if he would ever play again, his goal set was to get Bob Huggins a national championship.
There’s a relationship pattern between Huggins and his players.
So, how did this all start?
After his playing career at West Virginia from 1974-77, Huggins was asked by his college coach, Joedy Gardner, if he wants to come onto his staff as a graduate assistant. Huggins wanted to go law school but classes had already started, so he was on board. For a year, Huggins served as a graduate assistant at WVU, before Gardner was replaced by Gale Catlett. Catlett brought in a new set of staff, leaving Huggins without a job. That left Huggins to call one of the father figures in his life. Enter Chuck Machock.
Chuck Machock was a lot like Bob Huggins. Machock was a former player for the Cincinnati Bearcats in the late-1950s and his travel buddy was who else but the “Big O” Oscar Robertson. Machock got into coaching after his playing career and was an assistant at Ohio State when Huggins made the call. Machock was able to get Huggins the gig.
Following serving as an assistant coach at Ohio State for two seasons, Huggins was able to secure his first head coaching job at the age of 27 at Walsh College, located in North Canton, Ohio. Even though it was a Division II job, Huggins was all for having the lead at the helm of a college.
In Huggins’ first game coaching at Walsh, there were 36 people in the gym to watch the game. Huggins remembers because he counted all 36 of them. Some of the brothers at the college read their books during the first half and left by halftime. After the game, Huggins told his assistant that the play of their team would eventually keep the brothers to stay for the full game.
As expected, recruiting kids to Walsh was hard for any coach. Huggins remembers one time when he went out of his way, even for the kids that weren’t the brightest. At Walsh, each recruit needed to take an entrance exam to get into the school. Huggins was able to convince Bro. Francis—the president of the school—to switch the exam to an oral exam for this specific kid, because Huggins knew the kid wouldn’t get in any other way. Huggins and an assistant stayed up all night, teaching the kid about the life of Jesus Christ and all other religious general knowledge. The next day, Huggins and the player walked into Bro. Francis’ office. Bro. Francis asked the kid one question, “Where was Jesus born?” The player said, “Scranton.” Huggins said, “You’re an idiot. Everyone knows Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” The player responded, “Coach, I knew it was in western Pennsylvania somewhere but I couldn’t remember the name of that little town to save my life.”
Even when Huggins moved up to coach at Akron and Cincinnati, he struggled to recruit high school kids. This is when Bob Huggins became known for recruiting junior college players to his teams. During his early years at Cincinnati, Huggins was able to get Nick Van Exel, Corie Blount, Herb Jones, Terry Nelson and Erik Martin. This group of guys that Huggins was able to recruit into Cincinnati, was the core to their Final Four run in 1992. Huggins has always given JUCO players a chance to showcase their skills and they’re appreciative of him.
“You sat on my mother’s couch and told her that you would take care of me and make sure I got my college degree,” Nelson said. “I loved you… then I couldn’t stand you… then I wanted to be like you! Imitation is the highest form of flattery. I tried to quit, and you wouldn’t let me. You kept your word that you promised to my mom. You have supported me, and I finished my degree. 900 wins is incredible! Many student athletes’ lives were changed because of you. Just because they haven’t officially put you in yet, you are a Hall of Famer in my eyes.”
Even 30 years later, Bob Huggins is still recruiting JUCO players.
“He’s given me an opportunity that I will never know how to repay him for,” WVU guard Sean McNeil said. “Yeah, he’s a tough guy to play for. He gets on me more than anybody I’ve ever had in my life but I know that there’s a good purpose behind it.”
“I’m forever thankful,” McNeil added.
Bob Huggins embraces Nick Van Exel after advancing to the Elite Eight in East Rutherford, N.J., on March 26, 1993. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)
It doesn’t matter if you are a No. 1 pick, an All-American, or a walk on, Bob Huggins will give you a chance to achieve your lifelong dreams. That’s what happened with former Cincinnati basketball player Alex Meacham.
Meacham is a Cincinnati, Ohio native, who attended Roger Bacon High School in the 90s. With zero college offers, Meacham went to the University of Cincinnati and a dream: to walk on for his favorite team. Growing up, Meacham loved the Bearcats and he loved Michael Jordan, collecting all of the Jordan shoes over the years. MJ was his icon. With a friend, Meacham prepared a word-by-word speech for two months of how he would ask Huggins if he could walk on in 1997. As Meacham walked into Huggins’ office at UC, the first thing he saw was a picture of Michael Jordan. Meacham proceeded to forget his speech in its entirety due to his nerves after seeing Jordan and Huggins. Despite Meacham forgetting his speech, he must have convinced Huggins pretty well because Huggins allowed him to walk on, as Meacham achieved his dream.
“It changed my life! It was the hardest thing I have ever done but it made me who I am today. You can put me in any environment or situation in the world and I will succeed because of the lessons I learned from Huggs,” Meacham said. “When I finished playing, I wrote a book about my journey in hoops, and he wrote the foreword. I can’t thank him enough for the opportunity and his mentorship after I played. I leave him a voicemail every year thanking him for all he has done.”
“There will never be another coach in college basketball like Bob Huggins,” Meacham added.
If you’re a former or current player under Huggins, you know the 3-6 p.m. practices and the dreadful treadmill runs. What the players under Huggs also know is the amount of swagger he has. Terry Nelson thought Huggins would be scared to drive in his neighborhood when he came to recruit him. Not only was Huggins not afraid of the neighborhood, but he also shook hands like the people in the neighborhood.
“[Huggins] had swag before we understood what swag was,” Nelson said.
Bob Huggins doesn’t care who you are. He’s going to treat you like any other human. Even the President of the United States can’t hold Huggins back from saying what’s on his mind.
Before a game with Arkansas in 1994, President Bill Clinton’s secret service unloaded Huggins’ suitcase, including his drawls and made Huggins clean up the mess they made. After the game, Huggins bumped into Clinton for a conversation; remember this is the first time Huggins has met Clinton. Huggins asked Clinton if he [Huggins] pays taxes that pay for the secret service, why should they be allowed to do something like that to him. Clinton was unable to answer Huggins’ question.
That swag that Huggins possessed in Cincinnati was eventually carried back to West Virginia.
In April of 2007, it was time for Bob Huggins to live out a dream of his own: coaching at West Virginia. It was time for Huggins to return home. With tears in his eyes as he walked back into the WVU Coliseum, Huggins was on a mission to continue to make West Virginia basketball a respectable program.
“This has always been a dream for me to coach here. Hopefully, I coach here better than I played,” Huggins said at his introductory press conference.
Current Florida assistant and former WVU guard Darris Nichols remembers the first time Huggins met with the team.
“The first time we met him, it was crazy because going through the coaching change, it was a two-week period,” Nichols said. “Once they named him the head coach, I think he was there pretty much the next day or the same way and he’s walking into town.”
Nichols and the rest of the remaining WVU players were thinking about the connections that Huggins had at Cincinnati. More specifically, they were excited about the brand that Huggins that been associated with in the 90s and 00s.
“As a player, all we’re thinking about is, ‘Are we going to go and play with Jordan. Are we going to switch over to jumpman?’”, Nichols said.
Like Da’Sean Butler and Nichols, John Flowers had been recruited by John Beilein and committed to play under him. Huggins met with Flowers and his mother and won them over. Despite the coaching change, Flowers honored his commitment to WVU and Huggins and contributed to four years of great West Virginia basketball.
“Huggs taught me a lot of stuff through basketball that applies on and off the court. He enforced what being a man is and to take responsibility for what you do, be accountable for my actions and don’t point the finger,” Flowers said. “When things go bad, I ask myself what ‘I’ could have done better instead of pointing the finger. A lot more life lessons that I use today on and off the court.”
Bob Huggins celebrates the senior day festivities with Taz Sherman (left) and Gabe Osabuohien (right) on March 6, 2021, in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Dale Sparks)
Even after these guys graduate and do great things as adults, Bob Huggins is still there for them as their coach. Kevin Jones was apart of the Final Four team in 2010 with Butler and Flowers. After Jones graduated, one day he returned to the practice facility in Morgantown to visit. Huggins saw Jones switch his pair of jeans for shorts and asked him why he didn’t use the locker room. Jones said that he served his four years and that it was for the current players to have. That’s when Huggins had the idea of building a locker room for the former players for when they come back and visit.
“Huggs taught me the value of hard work and that in order to be great you can’t just work on the days you feel good, getting to the next level in any phase of life is a daily grind and there is no excuses or shortcuts,” Jones said. “Being his player for four years has made me as mentally and physically tougher than I ever could have imagined, to the point that I know I can get through anything life throws at me. So, I’m especially grateful to him for helping to instill that mindset in me.”
Bob Huggins is more than a hall of fame coach, he’s a father figure to these guys. The guys that appear in this story span over 30 years apart and at two different universities. Bob Huggins has spent the last 40 years as a basketball coach, but more importantly, a life coach. He turns these kids into men and prepares them to be successful after their college careers. The next time West Virginia takes the court, pay attention and notice the pre-game ritual that Huggins and his players have together; it’s beautiful. A hug from Huggs before they take the court.
“I’m going to fight for my guys,” Huggins said on The Bearcat Basketball Podcast. “I’ve always been that way and I will continue to be that way until I retire.”
(Top Photo: Denny Medley)
Thank you, Alex, Darris, Da’Sean, John, Kevin, Sean, and Terry!
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